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Carolingian Architecture: Style, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:05 Imperial Building…
  • 1:33 Carolingian Churches
  • 3:05 Carolingian Monasteries
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers Carolingian architecture. We first look at Charlemagne's place in a long tradition of imperial builders. We then look at features that distinguish Carolingian churches from early Christian churches: piers, transepts, choirs and westworks. Finally, we explore the blueprint of a Carolingian monastery.

Imperial Building Projects: A Long Tradition

Carolingian piers provided better structural strength in churches
Carolingian Piers

Emperors and building projects go hand in hand. Throughout history, emperors have undertaken monumental building projects to tie their empires together and proclaim their glory to the world. The Roman Emperor Augustus erected dozens of new temples and public buildings in Rome. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built baths, meeting halls and theaters throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Constantine built the entire city of Byzantium from scratch and financed the construction of Christian basilicas across his empire. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian continued Constantine's building program, creating some of the most impressive monuments of Byzantine architecture.

To that list, we can add Charlemagne. Though Charlemagne's accomplishments were modest by comparison to some of these great emperors, they are quite impressive given the lack of cultural production during the dark ages of Western Europe. Charlemagne wanted his empire to be as grand as Rome before him. So like the emperors before him, he sponsored the arts and financed building projects. Charlemagne's building projects mostly concerned cathedrals and monasteries. Many of these buildings also served as schools, as Charlemagne wanted to establish a larger base of literate subjects to help him run his empire.

Carolingian Churches

Example of westwork at the Aachen Palace Chapel
Aachen Palace Chapel

Carolingian churches show some distinct differences from early Christian churches. The delicate columns that graced the naves of early Christian basilicas gave way to heavier, bulkier piers, providing greater structural strength and allowing for ever-grander churches. The transept, or bema, a section that crossed the eastern end of a church to form a cross, went from an occasional addition to an established form in Western church building. The addition of a choir, or square area between the transept and the apse, was another invention of the Carolingian renaissance.

Yet the most distinguishing feature of Carolingian architecture is the birth of the westwork, a facade on the western entrance to a church. His capitol at Aachen shows this clearly. Just look at the Palace Chapel. Here we see that the early Christian narthex has been transformed into a single tower-like entrance, called a westwork. Over time, the single tower would become two towers flanking the entrance. We can already see this transition taking place in the Church of San Riquier, which sadly did not survive to modern times. The closest Carolingian architecture got to this two-towered westwork was in the Abbey Church of Corvey. These initial westworks would inspire the two-tower facades of later medieval churches.

Carolingian Monasteries

This church features a two-towered westwork
Abbey Church of Corvey

Besides building churches, Charlemagne constructed or expanded dozens of monasteries throughout his empire. These monasteries served as religious retreats, centers of scholarship and art and, most importantly, public schools for the learning of literacy and Latin. Unfortunately for students of Carolingian architecture, later leaders also recognized the benefit of these monasteries and expanded upon them as well, updating them to the styles of their age. As a result, it is difficult to find surviving examples of Carolingian monasteries that haven't been changed. However, we have something that's almost as good. We have a surviving blueprint for a standardized monastery. The actual complex might have looked something like this. This isn't really a blueprint, but more of a general outline. The very vagueness of this blueprint suggests that it might be a standardized design, to be applied and adapted to make new monasteries.

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